California gives teens an 'eraser button' to hide online skeletons

Sites and apps targeting minors will have to delete content on request, but the new law has limitations.

A child plays on a laptop. Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

Teenagers in California worried that their online posts might jeopardize their future opportunities have gained a measure of recourse in the form of an online "eraser button."

Legislation signed Monday by Gov. Jerry Brown will require Web sites, apps, and online services geared toward minors to offer, by 2015, the option of removing information posted by minors should they request it. The motivation behind the law to prevent young adults from being haunted by youthful indiscretions.

"Children and teens often self-reveal before they self-reflect and may post sensitive personal information about themselves -- and about others -- without realizing the consequences," James Steyer, founder of nonprofit group Common Sense Media, wrote in a letter to Brown advocating for the law.

The new law, sponsored by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), also prohibits the collection of minors' personal information for the purpose of marketing or advertising products or services that teens are prohibited from purchasing in California, such as alcohol, tobacco, and tattoos.

However, the scope of the new "eraser button" is limited. The option applies only to content posted by the minor making the removal request and doesn't cover images or information posted by other users. Also, while the law requires Web site operators to remove embarrassing content from their public sites, it doesn't require minors' data to be deleted from servers.

While Senate Bill 568 passed with unanimous support of the California senate, the bill was not without its critics. Noting that other states may pass their own laws geared toward protecting minors, opponents argued that the new law will lead to a patchwork of regulation that site operators will have to navigate. (The federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act -- COPPA -- requires Web site operators to obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting personal information from children younger than 13.)

The Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that advocates for Internet freedom, opposed the bill, calling it confusing and suggesting it would lead to less access to the Internet for minors.

"We are principally concerned that this legal uncertainty for website operators will discourage them from developing content and services tailored to younger users, and will lead popular sites and services that may appeal to minors to prohibit minors from using their services," the group said in a letter to lawmakers.

Web site operators and app developers that have users under age 18 have until January 2015 to comply with the new law.

 

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